Saturday, July 26, 2008

Who's In Charge of Water Conservation?

By Juan Mercado

That's the question citizens ask, as government services, often indifferent at best, are crippled further by the avian-flu like spread of election fever.

"So, who is minding the store?" Sure, the fire department is there. So, are the police, hospitals, the military. But its day-to-day services - like getting official licenses, permits etc -- that are slowing down.

And the deep-seated problems, that demand long term planning beyond election cycles, are relegated further down to lower drawers. "He who does not take thought of what is distant," the sage Confucius once warned, "will find sorrows well at hand."

Take watersheds. When water runs out and taps turn dry, food stocks will shrivel. It's a question of time before riots erupt, as dessicated communities wither away and die.

An estimated 70 percent of the country's total land area belong to watersheds of varying sizes. "Many are invariably degraded," notes the UN's Food and Agriculture Oganization in its September 2003 report: "Sustainable Forest Management, Poverty Alleviation and Food Security in Upland Communities."

Almost 10 million hectares of the country's forests were destroyed, at the rate of more than 150,000 hectares yearly, within a 53-year period. Even well-endowed forests, as the Philippines once had, cannot withstand such relentless plunder.

Unchecked pillaging has seen forest cover on the watershed level, drop to none, as in Cebu, to more than 50 percent in Pasonanca of Zamboanga.

The disastrous consequences have been widespread. In many instances, they have been irreversible.

Soil erosion afflicts most watersheds. Of the country's 77 provinces, 13 have over half their land blighted by moderate to severe erosion. Between 63 and 77 percent of land area has been ravaged, depending on the yardstick used.

And when soil goes, so do your farms --- and the food they yield for dinner tables. "To reverse soil erosion will make fighting insurgency seem like child's play," the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali once pointed out.

Few people stop to reflect that it takes nature over a century to form just one inch of top soil. That comes from forest biomass and the year-after-year action of God's rain and sun.

Yet, between 74 and 81 million tons of this resource -- much more valuable than Marcos' Swiss bank holdings or Jose Velarde's jueteng cream off -- have been washed away by floods cascading from denuded forests.

The data is there. In a 15-year period, for example, a fifth of irrigated systems dried up during summer. The food losses occurred even as population grew at rates that double in numbers every three decades. But we fail to heed "signs of the times."

Cereal shortfalls were made up by shopping abroad. "Costly imports have become the legal tender by which countries close their water deficits," the Worldwatch Institute points out.

Little has been done to adopt integrated water management, vital to curb erratic stream flows and the alarming drop in waterlevels. Waste in increasing volumes are dumped into rivers and lakes --- eroding their capacity to provide high quality drinking and irrigation water.

People's participation in watershed management is the key to lasting protection. No one pretends this is easy. "Organizing peasants is like stitching loose sheets of sand," Sun Yat Sen once said.

But it has to be undertaken. The alternative is continued destruction. And all too few local governments make the effort.

Much of the profligate waste of today's water stems from official mindsets and policy blackholes pegged to "an antiquated illusion of abundance." But the era of limitless water is over. Emerging shortages are here to stay.

Who among today's candidates would propose a tax on groundwater pumping in areas where aquifers are being depleted? Or impose penalties for those who pollute water?

Instead, our candidates will promise -- along with the moon -- rebates on water that they know full well is running short. In many places, water demands are already brushing against the limit of available supply.

Where are the candidates who see beyond votes, and think in terms of policies needed to put water use on a sustainable basis.

Our officials rarely sit down to think through the water issue. Or any other concern, like chemical pollution contaminating food chains. That requires hard effort, an exercise few are used to.

Invariably, they propose scrounging around for additional supplies for water. New sources, submarine pipes or big dams. Others peddle energy-intensive "desalinazation" -- which is really swapping costly fossil fuel for scrubbing salt from sea water.

How many pair that with conservation policies?

Yet, water-short nations, like South Africa and Israel have learned to integrate conservation policies as part of planning future water supplies. That is why these countries have "made their deserts bloom".

The Philippines is rapidly emerging as a semi-desert. And we'll have to scrap the mindset that we conserve only, as an ad-hoc measure, to alleviate droughts and other immediate crises.

Crafting a water efficient economy is the only alternative for a future of shortages. Conservation and better management can free large volumes of water and capital for competing uses, the Worldwatch Institute notes. :" Thus far, we have only seen hints of their potential."